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Federal Minister for the Environment and Heritage
The Hon Dr David Kemp, MP

Speaking Notes
Pandora Room, Holiday Inn, Flinders St Mall, Townsville
Friday, 4 July 2003

Reef Summit Opening & Launch of the State of the Reef Report

Thanks Peter for those kind remarks of introduction. I'm always very happy to be back here in Townsville.

I am particularly delighted to be here today to participate in this inaugural Reef Summit and to hear from a range of eminent speakers of the threats and challenges affecting the famous national, and international, icon that is the Great Barrier Reef.

It is also worth noting that this Summit also forms the start of the Reef Talk Series with the Australian Festival of Chamber Music.

A number of the speakers here today will also be delivering public lectures in the coming ten days or so, offering a wider audience the chance to hear some valuable information.

The Reef Talk Series is a collaboration between GBRMPA and the Australian Festival of Chamber Music. - a collaboration which I hope continues.

Not only does it help to focus public attention on an array of important reef issues, but it may also help to settle some of the more colourful public discussions about reef issues recently.

This is a great time to focus on the reef, with so much discussion focusing on its protection in recent weeks during the public consultation of our Representative Areas Program - a program which the Prime Minister has described as historic and visionary.

Townsville is obviously the centre of the reef - geographically - but importantly it is also the centre scientifically and managerially - with the Cooperative Research Centre Reef, James Cook University, the Australian Institute of Marine Science, and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority's headquarters.

Our hosts today, GBRMPA have primary responsibility for managing the reef for all Australians and this Summit is a clear example of their dedication to their work.

The authority has provided us with the chance to learn from a collection of some of the best minds on reef issues in this country and from overseas.

In this regard, I am particularly delighted to welcome Dr Sylvia Earle, from California, who brings a unique perspective to the discussions.

I have heard, as I'm sure much of this audience has, of Dr Earle's exploits in the underwater realm and I'm sure she will apply her deep experience, and great knowledge and make a contribution to the very important debate on the challenges facing the Great Barrier Reef.

These challenges are certainly many, and significant and it is indeed sobering to acknowledge that while we can be justifiably proud of the overall condition of the Great Barrier Reef, most of the rest of the world's coral reefs are not in such good shape - and that circumstance carries a warning for us.

Dr Earle and other speakers will highlight the massive responsibility that we have, as a nation, to the preservation of this extraordinary network of reefs.

The degradation of coral reefs internationally has been brought about by a range of pressures including overfishing, and pollution in many and varied forms, based largely on developments associated with burgeoning populations, and, most recently, by the new impact of global warming, expressed through the rising sea temperature which may have contributed to coral bleaching.

We have to be aware that our own reef is increasingly facing precisely the same suite of pressures.

We can even add to that list. We have the Crown of Thorns problem, and we have unique circumstances related to shipping routes through and near the GBR.

The Commonwealth is seeking to address all of these pressures.

In terms of water quality, we are developing with Queensland a Reef Water Quality Protection Plan, based on a Memorandum of Understanding signed by the Prime Minister and the Premier of Queensland.

Water quality is obviously a key issue. Relatively recent science has established that there has been a four-fold increase in the sediment load entering the Great Barrier Reef lagoon over the past 150 years, brought about principally by land use change.

We know also that there has been a major increase in the nutrient load, and the level of pesticides, entering the lagoon as a result of the farming and grazing associated with the change of land use.

The Water Quality Protection Plan will seek to bring together all the stakeholder groups in a cooperative effort to halt this decline in water quality entering the lagoon within a decade, and then to make improvements in that water quality.

We are working with fishers, both commercial and recreational, to seek to make the fisheries of the reef sustainable, and a particular joint achievement of industry, the Commonwealth, and Queensland in that effort is the East Coast Trawl Management Plan, which has significantly reduced the commercial effort associated with the trawl fishery.

We have instituted a review of shipping practices, in which GBRMPA has been deeply involved, and considerable progress is being made in making shipping safer. There is now an outside route, and some of the most potentially dangerous shipping - including oil tankers - is being encouraged to use that outer route.

We have toughened pilotage requirements, and we have joined the international community in phasing out old single hulled tankers, which pose a strong threat.

A very general and very powerful form of protection of the reef is through the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, which has given us, since 1999, unprecedented powers in terms of meeting our responsibility to protect the World Heritage values of the reef.

For the first time, any behaviour which might threaten those World Heritage values must be referred to me as Commonwealth Environment and Heritage Minister.

Before this legislation was in place our ability to protect those values was insignificant.

There are a wide range of other actions that have been taken, but the most significant is without doubt the most current - and that is the Representative Areas Program that is now with the community and the government in draft form, for a second round of consultation.

Through this process we intend to ensure that the unique biodiversity of the reef is adequately protected.

I would like to congratulate GBRMPA, and stakeholders, for the way in which it is being conducted.

There is a near universal recognition that the aim, of providing a high level of protection for the reef, while sustaining current uses to the greatest extent possible, is both valid - and necessary.

I especially want to acknowledge that I think we are fortunate to have the quality of leadership that currently exists in the key sectors as we engage the RAP and the water quality issues, in particular - and I include in that group the leadership of the sugar industry, the fishing industry - both commercial and recreational, and the tourism industry - as well as the leadership of GBRMPA.

No one group, in the end, will get all they want from this process but I am impressed with the way the issues are being handled, and I express my gratitude to the representatives of those industries for the way in which the consultations and the negotiations are being conducted, and for the benefits for the reef that have already accrued from activities outside the RAP.

With very few exceptions, I think there is a clear understanding of the fact that a sustainable reef is in the interests of all and I believe there is also a strong and wide commitment to the fact that a resilient, and healthy reef, is the cornerstone of sustainability.

Now let me turn to the State of the Reef Report, which I will shortly launch.

This was a landmark document 5 years ago when it was first produced, and it chronicled the condition of the massive ecosystem which is the GBR into a single volume.

This was not an easy task considering the range of research being conducted, and the diversity of opinions on what that research actually tells us.

Like any such document, it was at risk of being out of date by the time it was printed but it has proved to be an enduring and valuable document which is often quoted in scientific and management circles.

Perhaps more importantly, the State of the Reef Report seeks to synthesise a wide array of thought and science to give an assessment of where we are and some guidance on where we might be going.

This would be a big undertaking in your average terrestrial national park along the coast, but in an environment spanning almost a third of a million square kilometres, and 70 bioregions, it is a vast undertaking.

I wish there was better news to be had from this latest report.

It is certainly not all doom and gloom but it does make sobering reading. The following brief extract from the summary will give you an idea of what it covers -

These are disturbing developments, and they are a call to action.

They suggest that the havoc that has been wrought on coral reefs elsewhere in the world can be repeated here unless we are prepared to learn from international experience, and our own growing body of science and knowledge, and better protect and insulate our reef.

Despite these pressures, and threats, the Great Barrier Reef is still a wonderful natural asset for Australia and the world.

Many areas are still in very good condition - but there is no room for complacency on the part of government, of managers, of fishers, of tourism operators, or of the community.

The new version of the State of the Reef Report documents and synthesises the available science to enable as broad a community as possible to access the information.

I hope it is very widely accessed indeed, because I do not believe that any reasonable person who consults it in any depth could retain any doubt about the scale of the challenges - or of the level of responsibility that there is to do all that we possibly can to protect this wonderful conglomeration of natural - and economic - assets.

They will see that the process that we have embarked upon is crucial, and necessarily dynamic, as our knowledge of the challenges, and of the solutions, mounts - rapidly.

That is why there has been a major innovation in the new State of the Reef Report: It will now be a dynamic, rolling document.

The Marine Park Authority, through its Science, Technology and Information Group, grandly named but in reality with only a handful of dedicated full-time staff, have undertaken to constantly update the report - on-line.

Links will offer readers access to a vast range of supporting information.

It gives me great pleasure to officially launch the State of the Reef Report.

My final and enjoyable duty today is to introduce one of our speakers, Dr Sylvia Earle.

Dr Earle's current title is Chairman, Deep Ocean Exploration and Research in the US.

But this hides a background which is astonishing in its breadth and excitement.

She is currently the National Geographic's Explorer in residence, Executive Director for Global Marine Conservation, International, and Active Member to Director of 18 Non Profit Boards and Commissions, including World Wildlife Fund and Marine Educators Association.

She has extensive experience in Marine Science including as a former Presidential advisor to Bill Clinton, a world leader in ocean exploration (more than 6,000 hours underwater), and as a leader of more than 60 research expeditions.

She has more than 38 Honours and Awards including Honorary Doctorates, Fellow's and Women of the Year, and was described as one of Ten Greatest Explorers in Vanity Fair magazine in 2002.

Sylvia, thank you for taking the time out of your schedule to attend the Reef Summit. I particularly want to thank you for being here on the 4th of July. You may not see the firework and festivities you are used to but I'm sure you'll get some great North Queensland hospitality.

I invite you to address the Summit.

Commonwealth of Australia